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 The Rural Middle East

Giuliano Martiniello


The rural Middle East is often excluded from journals of agrarian change and peasant studies. There are in fact very few studies dealing with land questions, agrarian transformation and food systems in the Middle East compared to other regions in the world (despite a few exceptions) despite the existence of more than 20 million family farmers in the region. This omission is even more relevant when we see that the region is the most food dependent and ecologically vulnerable in the world. The paper explores this lacuna engaging with previous representations of the rural Middle East, which has been often framed as backward in Orientalist and Functionalist discourses. The paper explores these ahistorical representations showing the emergence of nationalist and Marxist schools of thought which contributed to reframe and re-historicize the study of the Middle East from political and political economy lenses, but also further entrenching its study within the box of the nation-state.


The paper offers a set of theoretical and methodological reflections about how to study the region, starting from its subordinate incorporation in the capitalist world system and the emerging patterns of uneven capitalist development. It points to the necessity of looking at land questions and agrarian transformations as the common denominator of studying the character, drivers and implications of social change in the region. It urges to look at these transformations from multi-scalar perspectives which simultaneously combine and reciprocally tie in a single frame different levels of analysis, from local to national, regional and global. It also argues for a combination of macro-historical and global studies of adverse incorporation of the region in the capitalist system along with more empirically rich and ethnographic based research. In relation to the former it advances a methodology of research called Incorporated Comparison developed by Phillip McMichael. This would help not to reduce the dynamics of change to capital-centric and global-centric perspectives in which the whole imposes change on the parts, but rather it helps understanding how changes in the parts contributed to shaping the world and vice versa. In relation to the latter methodology, the paper also highlights the need for space-specific and place-based analysis of the agrarian changes in the region starting from the everyday experiences and struggles of family farmers; and the ways in which they adjust or adapt to historical transformations, political challenges and political economy imperatives.


It argues that the rural transformations in the region need to be studied starting from changes in land-based social relations that occurred with the beginning of colonialism and during the post-colonial period, through the analysis of state land and agricultural policies which tried to revert some unevenness in the patterns of land distribution but were trapped into developmentalist agricultural projects which replicated the same colonially imposed international division of labor. It concludes with an exploration of the ways in which the neoliberal policies further contributed to the integration of the region’s agricultures and lands into the circuits of capitalist accumulation, contributing to shaping a market-based approach to food security which has worsened the prospects of rural development and immiserated millions of rural producers in the region, whose livelihood strategies have been further aggravated by persistent wars, economic reforms and ecological devastation.


Giuliano Martiniello is Associate Professor of Political Science at Sciences Po Rabat, Université’ Internationale de Rabat and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences, American University of Beirut. Prior to joining UIR, he was Assistant Professor at the American University of Beirut (2015-2020), Research Fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, Makerere University (2011-2015), and Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal (2012-2013). He got his PhD in Politics at the School of Politics and International Studies of the University of Leeds (2011). He is broadly interested in the political economy, political sociology and political ecology of agrarian and environmental change. His research interests include land regimes, food and farming systems, large-scale land enclosures and contract farming, conservation and deforestation, rural social conflicts and agrarian movements in Africa and the Middle East. He has published articles in a number of top-ranking international journals such as World Development, Journal of Peasant Studies, Journal of Agrarian Change, Geoforum, Third World Quarterly, Review of African Political Economy, among others. He is contributing editor of the Review of African Political Economy and Associate Editor of Agrarian South: A Journal of Political Economy. He is co-editor of the book Uganda: The Dynamics of Neoliberal Transformation, London, Zed Books (2018).